1. Health
Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Illuminating Research on Coping Styles

By February 16, 2012

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We all react to stress in our own ways. When the stresses of life get to us, certain coping styles become our "go-to" responses. Some of us may lean on our friends for support as a way to feel better and gain our bearings. Others may hunker down and look for a solution to minimize the stress. It can also be tempting to avoid those things that stress us, and think about something else.

Have you ever wondered which coping styles are most effective? Fortunately, stress research sheds some light on the issue. Researchers from University College London studied the cortisol levels of from 350 men and 192 women to see if there was an association between coping styles and cortisol levels--which would indicate stress levels and the effectiveness of the coping styles. They studied three popular types of coping: social support seeking (getting a little help from your friends), problem engagement (facing stressors and seeking a solution to problems), and problem avoidance (trying to get away from your stressors and problems).

Results showed that those who sought social support or coped with problem-engagement did experience lower levels of cortisol, showing that these strategies can effectively diminish the experience of stress and the stress response. Avoiding problems, on the other hand, doesn't help alleviate stress.

While this may seem obvious once you know the results of the study--we all "know" that running away from problems doesn't solve anything--there was an important point that stood out for me. The fact that social support was included in the study and found to be as effective as problem-solving in terms of stress relief shows that it's not merely the focus on solving problems versus avoiding them that relieves stress, is quite encouraging. For problems that cannot be easily solved (like facing a health crisis, dealing with a difficult job you are not in a position to leave, or managing other stressors that are built into your life and not easily eliminated, it helps to know that other forms of emotion-focused coping, such as seeking support, can be as effective in relieving stress. Remember, just as solving problems can minimize stress by attacking its source, stress can be neutralized with effective coping.

What works as 'effective coping' may be different for different people, so it helps to try a few techniques to see what works best for you. I would recommend facing problems and minimizing stressors wherever possible, and leaning on those you can trust, if that works for you. The following resources can help with that, and provide you with a few other ideas as well.

Coping Resources For Stress Management:

O'Donnell K, Badrick E, Kumari M, Steptoe A. Psychological coping styles and cortisol over the day in healthy older adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology. March 6, 2008.

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